This Sunday’s Guest Post is from Joseph Helmreich. Joseph reached out to Sci-Fi & Scary a few weeks back, and we were more than happy to feature a piece from him. I think lots of people will appreciate this topic. Enjoy!
Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return (2017, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody (Greenwood Press, 2008). In addition to his writing, he is a member of alternative folk duo, Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution. Find him on Facebook or at http://josephhelmreich.tumblr.com.
WRITER’S BLOCK: TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES
by Joseph Helmreich
You’re driving down a wide and scenic highway. On one side of the road lie enormous snowcapped mountains, lush greenery, shimmering crystal lakes. On the other side, in the far distance, you can make out a stunning metropolis, shiny glass skyscrapers stretching high into the clouds.
Soon, however, the mountains and buildings give way to desert. Not the romantically rugged wilderness of the Mojave or the sleek and endless gold of the Sahara, but a world of drab and dusty lifelessness, the monotony broken up only by the occasional cactus or ox skull. You continue to drive. There’s nothing much up ahead, but that’s okay because you can’t remember where you were going, anyway. You had a destination at some point, you’re sure of that, but you probably took a wrong turn long ago. Now you’re all alone in the desert and you start to wonder if you’ll ever find your way back out.
Fiction writers know this feeling well. Their story, once filled with so much promise and vitality, is suddenly stalled. The well has run dry. This can happen at the early stages of a project when the writer is first coming to terms with the infamously paralyzing Blank Page. It can happen midway through, when the story is spiraling in so many different directions that the writer can’t keep them tied together. It can happen later, in the face of pressure to deliver a killer ending, or barring that, one that will at least resolve the story. Whenever it occurs, the result is the same: the writer is stuck.
Or, to use the universally favored term, blocked.
In the course of writing my new novel, “The Return,” I found myself hit by several different forms of writer’s block, most variations on the ones mentioned above. With a strict deadline in place, however, I couldn’t afford to succumb to them, so I quickly developed strategies to prevent the inevitable creative ‘bumps in the road’ from truly crippling my storytelling. While obviously every situation is unique and what works for one writer may not work for another, I will now share some of these coping mechanisms in the hopes that they may be useful to someone, somewhere. At the very least, they can serve as a reminder of how messy the creative process can sometimes be. And if no reminders are needed, then hopefully my struggles can at least be a source of some good old fashioned schadenfreude.
For me, the first signs of trouble started early on. Not at the very beginning when I was still developing the basic plot, but a little while later, when I was first putting pen to paper. I had set up shop at the Writers Room, a wonderful shared workspace in Greenwich Village that bills itself as an “urban writer’s colony.” The Room, as it’s often called, with its high shelves of books written by current and former members and its beautiful views of midtown skyscrapers, could not be more conducive to writing. Yet somehow I found myself continuously distracted, looking for any excuse to procrastinate. When I did manage to write, I’d get the words onto the page, but the prose would feel flat, uninspired. I felt uninspired. I knew of course that many experts might insist that I just slog through, that the main thing is reach the finish line, that you can always go back and revise later, etc. There’s wisdom to that, no doubt, but it seemed like a depressing way to create and that’s when I was suddenly struck with an epiphany: Writing is exciting. And not merely in some theoretical sense, but rather, it’s an exciting activity by its very nature. And if I wasn’t experiencing any excitement, if crafting and communicating my story was feeling like a chore, I owed it to myself to do everything in my power to change that.
I happened to have a copy of the New Yorker with me, one of their special short fiction issues, and so I immediately started reading. By the time I’d finished that first story, I could already feel a change coming on. I was inspired, energized, in the mood to write. From that point on, I made a habit of always trying to read a little bit of something I loved before sitting down to write.
After this point, it was smooth sailing for a while. Whenever I felt my inspiration slipping away, I would simply bring it back by reading something that would get my juices flowing. I had to be careful, however, as this activity itself, which was ostensibly meant to motivate me to write, could occasionally veer into disguised procrastination. Setting limits on how much I allowed myself to read proved important.
Unfortunately, I soon discovered that inspiration can do wonders for your prose and productivity, but literary passion alone cannot fix your plot. My novel, though a work of science fiction, is heavily inspired by thriller writers like Harlan Coben and Lee Child and is consequently fairly twisty. At around the midpoint of my story, following several major turns in the plot, I suddenly found myself at an impasse. I knew what needed to happen next and could not figure out how to make it happen. The more pressure I put on myself to connect the dots of my story, the more paralyzed I became. At that point, I realized it was time to take a step in another direction. Several steps, in fact. Mentally and physically.
It was time to walk.
Walking allows you to both stimulate and relax your mind simultaneously. To ‘go with the flow,’ as it were. Of course, too much stimulation can be distracting. In my case, I find it difficult to stay focused on story ideas while walking bustling city streets. But a long stroll in a park or down a suburban road can do wonders for me. My mind becomes more open and new ideas begin to seep in. One thing I’ll try to do when walking is to actively disengage from trying to figure anything out and instead shift, mentally, from the role of creator to the role of spectator. I’ll picture a character in my head, visualize a scene, and lo and behold, that scene will start to play as though I’m watching a movie and fresh ideas and new directions will emerge (my mother, a novelist and ghostwriter, has similarly described her process as akin to movie-going).
Music can actually aid in this process. In fact, many plot points in my book came to me while listening to music. In one case, a lyric in a rock song I was listening to changed the entire direction of my story. The key, again, is to shift into a more passive mode and allow your mind some breathing room. When you do that, magical things can happen.
On the flip side, taking a walk can also be great for energetically and proactively tackling storytelling problems. A long enough walk can give you the mental space to run through ideas and zero in on their flaws and can also help you visualize your overall narrative in a way you can’t necessarily do when you’re hunkered down with your laptop.
One type of writer’s block I was fortunate not to experience while working on my book was the kind where you become disengaged from your story and unable to come up with fresh material. I think this is because so much of the subject matter I was working with was brand new to me. In the course of writing this novel, I was forced to learn about many fascinating topics with which I was previously unfamiliar, including quantum physics, the lives of Spanish parish priests, and the world of elite fighter pilots.
When you’re constantly researching new topics that interest you, it’s impossible to become bored and you also naturally want to share what you’re learning, which motivates you to write! Therefore, one strategy for pre-empting writer’s block is to choose a subject or setting that will require you to learn a little on the job (this advice, of course, flies in the face of the old adage, “write what you know,” which in my view, only makes it more credible).
Ultimately, however, as useful as these strategies were for me, there are no one-size-fits-all rules about writing and for all I know, approaches that helped me yesterday might prove less effective tomorrow. In a year from now, I might be frantically searching other people’s blog posts to find out how they combatted their own writer’s block.
In fact, at this very moment, I’m finding it somewhat difficult to find a good way to end this piece. Should I close with an anecdote, maybe one that illustrates how even great artists who make it look so easy actually sometimes struggle immensely with their work? Maybe the story about how Bob Dylan wrote “I and I” in fifteen minutes, while it took Leonard Cohen five years to write “Hallelujah”? Or perhaps I should call back that desert highway metaphor from the first paragraph and bring everything full circle? Sometimes, ironically, too many options can also be a cause for writer’s block. Hopefully, I’ll come up with something soon. In the meantime, now would be a great time to take a walk.
BLURB FOR THE RETURN:
During a live television broadcast on the night of a lunar eclipse, renowned astrophysicist Andrew Leland is suddenly lifted into the sky by a giant spacecraft and taken away for all to see. Six years later, he turns up, wandering in a South American desert, denying ever having been abducted and disappearing from the public eye. Meanwhile, he inspires legions of cultish devotees, including a young physics graduate student named Shawn Ferris who is obsessed with finding out what really happened to him. When Shawn finally tracks Leland down, he discovers that he’s been on the run for years, continuously hunted by a secret organization that has pursued him across multiple continents, determined to force him into revealing what he knows. Though Leland is at first reluctant to reveal anything, Shawn will soon learn the truth about his abduction, the real reason for his return, and will find himself caught up in a global conspiracy that puts more than just one planet in danger.